Wednesday, September 8, 2021

From top: Big Storm Brewing Co. in Cape Coral features an impressive 24 of its own beers on tap. SaltWater Brewery in Delray Beach is one of the stops on the Ale Trail of The Palm Beaches. Oil Well Craft Beer offers tasting flights from 20 taps featuring a selection of local, unique and difficult to find beers in addition to its own house-brewed beers. PHOTOS BY LAURA TICHY / FLORIDA WEEKLY; COURTESY OF SALTWATER BREWERY; COURTESY OF OIL WELL CRAFT BEER
TWO GUYS WALKED INTO A CRAFT BREWERY BAR and ordered beers. As they overheard other patrons’ conversations, an idea soon fermented in their heads.
“We would listen to people talk who didn’t know that, at the time (summer 2016), there were 11 breweries open across Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties,” said A.J. Gurgal, one of the two guys. “People maybe visited the one closest to where they lived. The popularity of craft beer in Southwest Florida really hadn’t exploded yet.” Mr. Gurgal was able to gain additional insights because he had an insider at Point Ybel Brewing Co. — his wife worked there part time as a bartender. Despite the existence of map apps, craft beer apps and smartphones right in people’s pockets, many customers of Southwest Florida’s craft breweries simply didn’t realize there were more than one or two places they could go for locally brewed beer.
Ale trails follow the model of wine trails. Wine trails started in France in the 1950s to encourage visits to wineries, and the concept took root in American wine regions such as Napa Valley and the Finger Lakes, to the point there are now about 300 wine trails in the United States. Ale trails later followed the model, encouraging visitors to seek out craft beer breweries. Mr. Gurgal had heard of a single ale trail in Florida — bubbling around St. Petersburg’s craft brewery scene and run by Pinellas County’s tourism bureau. He also had purchased a craft beer map, published by a private company, while on a European vacation. These two examples came together as the ingredients that he and the other guy, Zac Barson, used as their basis to found their business, SWFL Ale Trail LLC, and launch their trail in March 2017.
Kelsey City Brewing in Lake Park is one of the stops on the Ale Trail of The Palm Beaches. COURTESY OF KELSEY CITY BREWING
“The map idea evolved into a passport,” Mr. Gurgal said. “When we got started, we really had nothing to show any of these people. Point Ybel — we had a connection there — but the other breweries we’d go have a beer and then ask the bartender for information on who to contact to do marketing for them. As we got commitments from each brewery, it became easier until we had 11 on board and gave it a go. Looking back, all we had was an idea — no data, a few pictures of what we thought the passport would look like, a mockup page and nothing else to show the brewery owners.”
The Southwest Florida Ale Trail Passport program comes with the incentives of earning a commemorative beer glass and refillable growler after making a specified number of purchases to earn stamps at participating breweries, restaurants and bars. COURTESY OF SWFL ALE TRAIL LLC
The Southwest Florida Ale Trail Passport is now in its fifth year of publication. The booklet has expanded to 62 pages to feature 18 breweries and 10 craft-centric restaurants and bars in four counties. It’s also no longer one of the only ale trails in the state. At least nine trails have been brewed up in metropolitan areas and tourist destinations, run by organizations varying from brewery associations to visitor and convention bureaus. Ale Trail of The Palm Beaches is one of those newer trails.
“After seeing the growth of breweries in our area, going from just two breweries to nearly 20 in a few years’ time, the Ale Trail was launched in 2019,” the ale trail team at Discover The Palm Beaches wrote by email. “The trail was a way to entice beer fans seeking to try new local Florida brews in The Palm Beaches, while also providing local businesses additional exposure.”
Distillery tours let you have a peek at what it means when a label says a liquor has been aged. COURTESY OF ALLIGATOR BAY DISTILLERS
The trails take a variety of forms. Just as the Southwest Florida Ale Trail passport also includes a select collection of restaurants and bars that specialize in featuring craft beers, Florida’s Treasure Coast combines the breweries, wineries and cideries in Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties to form a single ale, wine and cider trail with 11 destinations.
Information, format and cost vary. At a minimum, ale trails consist of a list of breweries with addresses and usually a map, presented either on paper or on a website. However, some ale trails list more detailed information, such as beer specialties and types of amenities and events, and may even offer discounts and incentives. Treasure Coast issues a free paper map to follow and collect stamps towards a prize, whereas Discover The Palm Beaches started with a paper map (that is still available) but has added a digital pass for smartphones that offers discounts at breweries. It’s free for people to download, after providing some registration information. The Southwest Florida Ale Trail differs from the tourism bureau trails in that it costs $17 to purchase a passport, but it offers discounts along with incentives of a commemorative beer glass and growler (refillable glass beer jug) after making purchases and collecting passport stamps at a specified number of breweries.
Distillery tours give the opportunity to learn the difference in the manufacturing and aging process of various types of liquors, such as at this tour of List Distillery in Fort Myers conducted by Marcell Villa, bottle engraving specialist. LAURA TICHY / FLORIDA WEEKLY
“Our goal was to create a program that provided enough incentive for people to venture out and visit the other breweries in the area, so that is why we came up with the incentive structure that we have,” Mr. Gurgal said. “We tried to come up with something that was most beneficial to all parties involved, including the breweries and participants. Although there is a cost associated with our passport, there are over $200 worth of incentives included in the passport between the brewery incentives, glassware and partner discounts.”
Some local craft breweries are now able to package their beers for carryout, such as the Tropical Lager brewed by Eight-Foot Brewing in Cape Coral. COURTESY OF EIGHT-FOOT BREWING
The programs have proven popular with customers, both locals and visitors. Despite being launched amid the bar closures of 2020, the Palm Beach digital pass has been downloaded at least 700 times. The first Southwest Florida Ale Trail Passport sold 1,100 copies, and Volume III of the passport (March 2019-February 2020) grew to 2,000 copies sold. Mr. Gurgal said he is optimistic about building sales back up to that number, which have gone down amid the pandemic.
“People really enjoy getting a chance to visit the breweries and earn rewards along the way,” Mr. Gurgal said. “Some of the best feedback I get is when we see people at breweries getting their stamps because they have no idea who we are. It is always great when we see people explaining the passport to other people sitting around them who ask because they haven’t seen it before. It is great to hear people talking about how much they love it. We have even had people pitch it to us and tell us how we should buy one.”
Craft breweries offer samplers called flights so that participants can taste several different beers. LAURA TICHY / FLORIDA WEEKLY
Ralph Sharp, a homebrewer and a regular at Oil Well Craft Beer in Ave Maria, keeps his passport in his car so he has it with him if he finds himself in Naples or in Lee County. The passport program has also prompted him to plan some trips.
“I find it useful because some of the farther ones, like LaBelle or Punta Gorda, I don’t really get to that often,” Mr. Sharp said. “My wife doesn’t drink, so I have a designated driver. I would probably go to most of them, but the ones that are a little farther out, maybe not. So, I’ll go ahead on a day trip to the farther ones because it gives me a good excuse to go visit when I’m trying to get the passport complete for the glass or the growler. Discounts are good, but I like the glass better.”
Likewise, the trails are popular with the participating breweries and businesses. Florida breweries tend to be located in odd locations off the beaten track because of zoning regulations as well as the space requirements for brewing equipment. Frequently they’re in industrial parks or in old warehouses, making them tricky to find, even with smartphone map apps. Other times they’re nested inside of other businesses as collaborators, which can also make them tricky to locate.
“We’re kind of out here in Ave Maria — it’s a pretty good hike from Naples — so it gives people a reason to check out our brewery and our town,” said Matt Williams, co-owner of Oil Well Craft Beer. “The passport has gotten people to go ahead and make the trip because they want to see our beer selection and get their stamps to get their glass. The first year as a small business there were a lot of expenses, so we were on the fence, but in the long run, it’s a marketing tool. It brings new faces in to try our beer.”
Ale trails can prove to be invaluable marketing because they target exactly the customers that participating breweries and businesses seek, as well as curate exactly the types of beers and experiences that the craft brew customers seek.
“The ale trail is a very good way for people who enjoy craft beer to find us very easily, which it’s not always easy,” said John Berry, owner of The Ice House Pub in Punta Gorda, a craft beer bar that’s an advertising partner in the Southwest Florida passport. “You can certainly search on the internet and different places, but you never really know. When the ale trail came out, it’s a community of people who could see and find the craft beers that they’re looking for. Craft beer drinkers are a different kind of people. They’re all friendly and like to share their experiences, things that they’ve tasted and different breweries that they’ve been to — it’s just a great community.”
It might sound counterintuitive for breweries and craft beer bars to join a marketing campaign that seems to send their business to their competitors. However, the nature of craft beer and brewery culture is one of collaboration, contrast and cooperation. Or put more simply, craft beer fans crave unique experiences and craft breweries try new things.
“The ale trail helps the different breweries in the area work together to get customers in because we can do a better job together than we can individually,” said Roger Phelps, owner of Eight-Foot Brewing in Cape Coral. “We have regulars that come in a couple of times a week, but they will go other places as well, which is just part of the culture. It’s also great for us because that means we’re going to get other people in as well who don’t know us, which the ale trail promotes. It puts us on the map for customers in Naples and Punta Gorda who might not necessarily know we exist, and vice versa. We try to create an environment that encourages curiosity. We want you to try different things.”
The spirit of experimentation that permeates craft breweries not only lends to creating unique brews; it also encourages the owners to take chances on new ideas — such as one dreamed up by two guys who walked into a craft brewery bar.
“We couldn’t have done any of this without the amazing support of the breweries,” Mr. Gurgal said. “They distribute and sell over 90% of our passports that are out there each year. We appreciate they trusted that this would work and agreed to be in that first version.” ¦
In the KNOW
Ale trails around Florida
Southwest Florida Ale Trail Collier, Lee, Hendry and Charlotte counties www.swflaletrail.com
Ale Trail of The Palm Beaches Palm Beach County www.thepalmbeaches.com/ale-trailpalm beaches
Florida’s Treasure Coast Wine & Ale Trail Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties www.tcwineandaletrail.com
Central Florida Ale Trail Orlando to Deland www.centralfloridaaletrail.com
Daytona Beach Ale Trail Volusia County www.daytonabeach.com/food-anddrink/ ale-trail
Jax Ale Trail Jacksonville area www.visitjacksonville.com/ jax-ale-trail
Greater Fort Lauderdale Ale Trail Broward County www.sunny.org/dining-and-nightlife/ drinks/breweries
Tampa Bay Ale Trail Sarasota to Lakeland to Brooksville www.tampabaybeerweek.com/aletrail
Gulp Coast: St. Pete/Clearwater Craft Beer Trail Pinellas County www.visitstpeteclearwater.com/ gulp-coast-craft-beer-trail
Distilleries that offer tours
Everglades Distillers 160 Airpark Blvd., Unit 104, Immokalee 239-658-5701 www.EvergladesDistillers.com Telephone at least 24 hours in advance to book tour.
List Distillery 3680 Evans Ave., Fort Myers 239-208-7214 www.listdistillery.com Telephone for tour; same day may be available.
Wicked Dolphin Rum Distillery 131 SW 3rd Place, Cape Coral 239-242-5244 www.wickeddolphin.com Book tour on website.
Alligator Bay Distillers 25522 Marion Ave., Punta Gorda 941-347-8419 www.alligatorbaydistillers.com Book tour on website.
Palm Beach Distillery 1142 Okeechobee Road, Bay #6, West Palm Beach 561-657-8118 www.lostharbourspirits.com Telephone for tour.
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